Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda has a way with tugging at the audience’s emotions and in his most successful film to date, Like Father, Like Son, it isn’t hard to see why. Koreeda’s award winning film asks the question: who do you truly call family (or in the movie’s case, who you truly call a father) and explores its premise with much consideration.
Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a successful architect living in Tokyo with his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and their adorable six year old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota works long hours and can be viewed as a stern father, but the family is happy. Smooth sailing isn’t forever however as Ryota and Midori discover that Keita isn’t biologically their son. A mixup at the hospital at the time of Keita’s birth and a subsequent bloodtest reveal that Ryota and Midori have bene raising the wrong child.
Enter the Saiki family who has been raising the Nonomiyas’ biological son this whole time. The Saiki family’s family dynamic is far different to that of the Nonomiyas and as a result, their “poorer” countryside lifestyle has raised a child that has a personality that doesn’t mesh as well with Ryota’s stern child-rearing.
Seeing the vast differences between the personalities of the Nonomiya’s accidentally adopted and biological sons made me wonder about the film’s intention of highlighting the nature vs. nurture debate over raising children. Or was Koreeda merely highlighting the shift in Japanese culture where family life has become even more important by showing the difference how both families have supported their children? In Ryota, we see a strict father who wants nothing but the best for his son and wants him to succeed while with Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky), we see a father who not spends quality time with his children and, in the process, builds a strong an emotional bond between himself and his kids.
While both families try to deal with the situation after numerous meetings, the Nonomiya family and the Saiki family come to an agreement. They agree to swap Keita and Ryusei for a few weekends so that the parents can get to know their biological sons. These weekend sleepovers soon become permanent but the transition to new life isn’t easy.
Testing the emotional bonds between parents and their children, Koreeda takes the audience on a journey to see where those limits could potentially go. And that’s exactly what I love most about this film. While the first half of Like Father, Like Son lays out the foundation of the story it is well into the second half of the film that really defines the terms of what makes a man a good father.
What was even more intriguing about Like Father, Like Son was that Koreeda doesn’t just focus on Ryota, he too also focuses on the other parents affected in this situation. Despite Midori’s attempts to reach out and bond with her biological son Ryusei, you see feel her bond with Keita to win over. Meanwhile Yudai and his wife, Yukari Saiki (Yoko Maki) welcome Keita into their home.
And despite not raising him, Keita soon adapts to their lifestyle yet they hold relative uncertainty over Keita adapting completely. Koreeda even focuses small parts of the film on the two children in their new living habitats. Offering a small window into each parent and child’s perspective helps to changes your own perspective as you watch so I’m really glad director Koreeda didn’t just focus the story from Ryota’s perspective.
The film’s cinematography and and score additionally is enchanting but not overpowering. In fact, many of the film’s simple and quieter scenes have stayed in my mind whenever I think of Like Father, Like Son. Scenes of the Nonomiyas’ trip to the Saiki household with Keita (and then back to the Nonomiya’s household with Ryusei) and the train scene with Midori and Keita have stuck with me. The latter in particular is striking as the conversation between mother and adopted son uses its environment to maximum effect, intentional or not.
Whether other films might ignore the smaller moments in life, Koreeda magnifies them and has done so with such poise in his brand of family dramas. Like Father, Like Son ends on a warmly satisfying note but it happens in between that leaves an impression on viewers and makes it an endearing and thought-provoking watch.